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Theresa May exits a building carrying a file.
British Prime Minister Theresa May.
Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

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Women, Politics, and ‘Vogue’

A history of first ladies and female politicians in the pages of fashion’s bible.

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Theresa May, the British prime minister, was to appear on the April cover of American Vogue, the Guardian said in January. She’d reportedly been photographed by Annie Leibovitz at Chequers, the official country house of the prime minister. When the issue was unveiled last week, much of this was revealed to be true: May did indeed land in the pages of April’s Vogue, in a spread shot by Leibovitz at Chequers, and her name even ran on the cover. But the star who took the main spot was 24-year-old Selena Gomez, wearing hoop earrings and a floral bustier.

Vogue needs to move newsstand sales, so of course Gomez, the most-followed person on Instagram, would edge out a British politician that few Americans knew by name, let alone face, before she became prime minister in the wake of David Cameron’s resignation this summer following the Brexit referendum.

Whether or not it was ever in the cards for Vogue’s April issue, putting a woman holding political office on the cover would have been unprecedented for the magazine, which has become increasingly political of late. For the first time ever, Vogue endorsed a candidate in the 2016 election — Hillary Clinton — and online it covers the Trump administration frequently and critically (“The Global Gag Rule Is a Disaster: Here’s What You Need to Know”). Though it lacks an accompanying “73 Questions” video or halo of adjacent web content, the magazine feature about May, which went live on Vogue’s site this week, is noticeably longer than Gomez’s.

The history of women in politics in Vogue is in many ways a history of women in politics, albeit one skewed toward elegance and aspiration. It has featured former US Attorney General Loretta Lynch and Geraldine Ferraro, who became the first female vice presidential candidate to represent a major party in 1984. Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and Huma Abedin, the vice chair of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign, have also graced its pages.

By volume, though, it’s a history of a role that is undeniably political, but indeterminately so: the first lady.

The magazine has long been in the habit of covering the first lady at the start of a president’s term. Vogue wrote about a 1913 garden party thrown by Ellen Wilson in the first year of her husband Woodrow Wilson’s presidency. (“It was the first big social test of the new administration, and curious Capital femininity flocked to see what differences there were between this and other administrations.”) When Herbert Hoover entered office in 1929, his wife Lou Henry Hoover’s portrait appeared in the May 11th issue with the simple explanatory line “Mrs. Herbert Hoover.”

A March 1941 blurb about Eleanor Roosevelt appears beside a full article on great male orators, across from a full-page photograph of the first lady in her “rose-white” inaugural gown; Mamie Eisenhower and Lady Bird Johnson appeared in similar fashion.

The magazine wrote, “Mrs. Roosevelt has set her own precedents of unselfish benevolence, and broadened the position of a President’s wife to fit the measure of her own spirit. (In 1939 and again in 1940, though her voice was voted second to her husband’s, Gallup polls revealed that her backers in the nation topped the President’s.)”

Over time, Vogue covered the first lady in greater depth, noting along the way the growing importance of a wife in her husband’s campaign.

“To-day, it is an axiom of American politics that a candidate is no stronger than his wife,” the magazine wrote of the pool of candidates’ wives in 1940. “This year, on the campaign trail, the political wife is behaving—and the press is covering her—almost as if she herself were the candidate,” it said in 1987 of that year’s would-be first ladies. In a 1992 piece titled “The Cookie Cutter Wives of Politics,” Judith Miller asked, “In a year when more women have sought and are expected to win national and state offices than ever before... why were the wives of the candidates made to appear more wifely, more nurturing, more blandly, conventionally feminine ever before?”

The demands placed on a first lady had already been made clear. In a 1972 profile of Pat Nixon, Vogue wrote:

“News media are looking for women who lead, who fight back, who soul- and role-search; who, like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, photograph spectacularly; who, like Eleanor Roosevelt, are trailblazing humanitarians; who, like Lady Bird Johnson, have demonstrated vigor and a sense of language, the gift to be articulate about the White House corridors that “thunder with history.” Of course, the rub here is that none of these women could individually fill the contemporary vision of this First Lady-of-all-purposes-and-inclinations—an improbably composite of executive wife, diplomat, fashion model (will there ever again be a stout First Lady?), feminist, and super-hostess.”

Vogue predicted Michelle Obama, basically.

Michelle Obama wears a blue sheath dress.
Michelle Obama covers Vogue in 2013.
Photo: Vogue

And it indeed put Obama on its cover in 2009, 2013, and 2016. Stylish, world famous, and well-liked (she had a significantly higher approval rating than her husband), Obama was the ultimate cover star. She had all the trappings of a true American celebrity, having done Carpool Karaoke with James Corden and raised her daughters in the public eye. She was “just like us,” but so much better.

The first lady feature has more leeway to read like a celebrity profile, too. A 1989 profile of Barbara Bush that highlights her unfussy, down-to-earth attitude begins, quite simply: “Everybody loves Barbara Bush.” Fundamentally, these stories are about personality and self-determination — how a woman, given influence and visibility but no preset duties, decides to live her life.

The only other current first lady to have sat for Vogue’s cover in recent memory — Melania Trump’s February 2005 appearance excluded — is Hillary Clinton in December 1998. Wearing a long velvet dress and a big smile, she looked ready to host a holiday party. If Clinton had won the election, it’s hard to imagine Anna Wintour wouldn’t have done her utmost to get her on the cover once again.

Hillary Clinton sits on a red couch in a velvet dress.
Hillary Clinton covers Vogue in 1998.
Photo: Vogue

The magazine captured Clinton’s decades-long arc from first lady (photographed in a black turtleneck by Annie Leibovitz in 1993) to senator (a feature in March 2001’s “Power” issue titled “Hillary’s Turn”) to presidential candidate (“The Race Is On,” March 2016). As more women have risen to prominence in politics, Vogue’s coverage of them has increased and diversified, too.

There are meaty career profiles of appointed officials like Lynch (2015), her predecessor Janet Reno (1993), and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (1997). There are features on those in or out of elected positions (New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand, former Arizona representative Gabrielle Giffords). There are shorter, nearly breathless pieces on young upstarts like Audrey Gelman, 25 years old and spokeswoman for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer when she was featured in a 2012 issue of Vogue, and Sandra Fluke, 33 and running for California state senate in 2014.

In typical fashion magazine style, they often play on the thrill of the new and the superlative. “Hillary Clinton may be the most famous senator... but Jean Carnahan may become one of the best,” a March 2001 headline said of Carnahan, a Missouri Democrat who was appointed to fill her husband’s role in the Senate after his posthumous election. She served from 2001 to 2002.

The accompanying photo spreads, frequently the work of Leibovitz, show these women in the most compelling light for their particular career moments. As a presidential candidate, Clinton gazed confidently out the window, as though regarding a bright future, and smiled while working in her campaign headquarters. In a feature published just three months after Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby rose to the national stage when she announced her intention to prosecute six police officers in the death of Freddie Gray, Vogue showed the 35-year-old sitting back in her office chair, arms folded, eyes looking directly at the lens.

It’s worth noting that the same principle applies to the first lady. Michelle Obama’s first two Vogue covers looked very professional, but her third, which ran in the final month of her husband’s second term, played up her glamour quotient. She wore an off-the-shoulder dress; she reclined and tossed her head back for the camera. The spread seemed like a final hurrah mixed with the message: “You’re going to miss us when we’re gone.”

For her new feature, Theresa May strides across a lawn while smiling at her husband (a bit of humanizing levity) and sits on a couch, looking steely (the required seriousness). She’s garnered negative attention for her interest in fashion, but a jacket draped over her shoulders is as cutting-edge as it gets. While Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift have played fashion chameleon for Vogue, women in politics who pose for the magazine never look very different than they would on any other day. The lighting is just better.

It’s hard to see politicians displacing actors and singers on the cover of Vogue, just as entertainers booted models in the ’00s, but their presence in the book only seems to be on the rise. Maybe when the country elects its first female president, she’ll take the cover, too.

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